Unanimous Supreme Court ruling boosts Air Force’s effort to combat sexual assault

  • Published
  • By Charles Pope
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

In a unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has reinstated rape convictions against three men in the Air Force, deciding that a lower military court improperly nullified the prosecutions and that the error was so stark that “resolving the question does not require lengthy analysis.”

While the case, United States v. Briggs, was arcane and narrow, the Dec. 10 ruling settled a troublesome legal question that required rape and sexual assault cases to be investigated, prosecuted and completed within a 5-year “statute of limitations” for cases originating between 1986 and 2006.

That narrow window, established by a now discarded 2018 ruling from the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, differed from the current version of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which, in 2006, made clear that for rape and sexual assault offenses, there are no statute of limitations. This parallels most civilian courts as well as provides victims time to decide what to do after such a traumatic event.

Though the Supreme Court specifically examined the role of the death penalty in the cases and its treatment under the UMCJ, the Court acknowledged that a longer period of time is the correct constitutional approach given the difficulties inherent in rape cases.

“The trauma inflicted by such crimes may impede the gathering of the evidence needed to bring charges,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the decision. “Victims may be hesitant for some time after the offense about agreeing to testify. Thus, under current federal law, many such offenses are subject to no statute of limitations.”

As a result, the Court restored rape convictions against Lt. Col. Michael Briggs, Lt. Col. Humphrey Daniels and MSgt. Richard Collins, all Air Force personnel who had been convicted in separate cases.

“The three offenders whose cases were decided by the Supreme Court will not have their lawfully-obtained convictions and sentences erased by the technicality” as directed by the Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces, Air Force chief prosecutor, Col. Shaun Speranza said.

“Their punishments will be restored, as should their victims’ faith in our dedication to justice,” he said. Speranza’s attorneys from the Air Force Government Trial & Appellate Counsel Division played an instrumental role supporting the case, working closely with the U.S. Solicitor General’s office which argued the case before the Court.

While the Supreme Court’s focus was limited to three known cases across the 20 years in question, Speranza said the emphatic ruling carried a broader significance in the effort to combat sexual assault and violence in the Air Force and across the entire military.

“The Supreme Court decision in Briggs effectively closes the window on military sexual offenders escaping prosecution under the Uniform Code of Military Justice due to the date of their crimes,” he said. “Now, no matter when the alleged rape occurred after 1986 or when the victim has the courage to report the offense, we can exercise criminal jurisdiction over the accused service member.”

Harmony Allen is the human face of the legal complexities and trauma at the core of the case.

Allen was raped and beaten by Collins in 2000, when both were stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. She was 19. Collins was not only her superior but also her instructor in her coursework to become a radiology technician. 

Collins was convicted in 2017 and sentenced to 16 ½ years in jail. But Collins appealed and won because the conviction came seven years after the rape. The verdict was set aside and his sentence erased. He was released after serving two years.

“To get that justice, yes, it did restore my faith that there is still justice,” she said in an interview. “Yes, I feel it’s justice.” 

The outcome of the case, she said, “has huge implications” for the larger efforts across the military to address sexual assault. It also means that Collins must serve the remainder of any sentence. 

Allen said she believes the Court’s decision will encourage additional efforts to attack the problem across the military and build on the progress that’s been achieved to date.

Addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment has become a major focus in the Air Force and across the entire U.S. military.

Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, for example, made leadership changes following an independent review of incidents at Fort Hood, Texas triggered by questions and concerns from the family of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén and by Congress following Guillén's disappearance and murder. A task force was also formed to examine issues identified in the report.

Allen said she sees change that gives her reason to hope.

One major advance came seven years ago when Congress directed the military to establish the Special Victims’ Counsel (SVC) Division to represent and advocate for victims of sexual violence. The assistance is often provided by military lawyers who are charged with vigorously representing and protecting the interests of their clients.

The program ensures that victims are fully informed of their options and rights at every stage of a case, helping them make informed decisions throughout the process, and ensure their desires are communicated and respected. The attorney also works to “maximize victim privacy, minimize the impact of the process on their personal and professional lives, and ensure dignity and respect for the client.”

More directly, one SVC official said, “we advocate for whatever outcome the victim desires as long as it is legal and ethical.”

Allen said having an SVC was crucial. 

“She sat beside me and represented my rights. Without my SVC team, I would have been completely lost and alone,” Allen said. “Every time I called she always picked up the phone.”

In the Air Force, 49 SVCs represent approximately 1,000 sexual assault victims at any time. The unit, which by design is independent, averages nearly 2,000 cases each year.